I'm no cat, but curiosity has killed me all the same. Danger and pollution surround our safe biodome, and I'm about to go outside. Not of my own free will. Sentenced to follow in the footsteps of my long-dead brother. Uselessly, every nerve in my body prepares me to run or fight … to do something. But if I so much as twitch, the all-seeing eyes will gun me down. I'd sooner take my chances out there.
Miles of bridges connect the many islands of what we once knew as a single Great Britain. The seas rose and claimed all but the highest ground. The great nation of Coherence rose from the ashes of a world destroyed by prejudice and greed. Saving the planet took third place to making ever more money and grabbing ever more power. Until the planet broke. Then came wars over vital resources such as land and potable water. Humankind stumbled on until a few of their number decided germ warfare was the sure way to win.
From birth, the elders teach us that hate is the flipside of love, and covetousness the dark twin of compassion; thus, each is to be eschewed with utmost vigour. Cold logic and knowledge are the only way to prosper. I don't remember who gave me the heart-shaped diamond locket, nor why I insisted on wearing it all these years, hidden beneath my jumpsuit, even knowing what I risked. Unfortunately, ignorance is no defence. Had I still been a child when they caught me wearing the contraband, I would have escaped with a mere slap of the wrist and confiscation. At age eighteen, I'm an adult and must suffer adult punishment.
A robotic arm lowers the clear polymer helmet over my head. The air hisses when the seal secures around the connector at my neck and throat, and my ears pop at the abrupt change in pressure. At the roots of my hair, beads of perspiration break out and make my scalp itch. Tinny, through the helmet speakers, Elder Minerva's voice demands, 'Come, Sophia. It's time.'
A second robotic protuberance joins the first, and they each grab me by the upper arm, tightly enough to bruise. Subdued, I stumble along as they drag me toward the pressure lock. They shove me inside, and I fall to my knees. Behind, the door hisses shut. Inside the suit, as the pressure equalises, static electricity raises tiny hairs all over my body. Before I'm anywhere near ready for the ordeal, the portal ahead opens with a whoosh.
It's pitch black beyond the dim glow which escapes the opaque dome. The roar of the sea sounds distant through the protective suit, but the violence of the waves which hit me as soon as the portal opens is brutal. I brace and stand rooted to the spot as though upon a magnetized floor. Ready for such hesitation, another robotic arm pushes me onto the metal grid of a small balcony. With a screech, I grab the flimsy railing and stare behind. The portal slides shut, but I can't hear it over the force of wind, sea, and waves. The tempest matches the inner hurricane of my adrenaline and terror, and I rock violently and overbalance.
Though I've watched this countless times from the safety of a holo-screen within the dome, I still scream in mortal fright. After a fall of a hundred feet, a drone swoops in, clamps onto the hooks at the shoulders of my suit, and lifts me out of reach of the ocean's questing fingers—a dark maw ready to swallow me whole. A new appreciation for the bravery and sacrifice of the cleaners who have gone before leaves me humble and ashamed.
The limitations of the domes and the need to ration resources demands we keep our populations small. Only the elite reproduce, and anyone who survives to the ripe old age of forty volunteers to go outside and clean the corrosive salt from the outer walls of their home dome. Such self-sacrifice ensures the survival of the community. It's always jarred with me that the so-called glory of sacrifice is also the means of executing law breakers. Surely that mars the honest offerings of the volunteers? These thoughts flit through my brain in a matter of seconds, and in that time, the salt spray has coated my visor and obscures my vision. I raise an arm and swipe the back of my gloved hand across the polymer to clear it. The drone flies me to NNE235, my sector to clean tonight. I feel nauseous, and bile rises up my throat. Frantic, I swallow it down—I can't throw up while I'm wearing a helmet. Eww.
The dome looms toward me, and I fear I'll crash and go splat all over what I'm supposed to wash. Abruptly, the drone jerks to a stop and hovers in place. The buzz of its propellers travels from my sore ears and rattles through my bones and nerves. I don't know what happens after this, as the camera feeds always cut out at this point. After a minute's silence in honour of my impending death, the community will return to work.
Determined to leave this mortal coil with my pride intact, I reach down to my waist belt and unclip the hose. Even airborne, the chemical tank, alongside the oxygen cylinder, weighs heavy on my back and shoulders. With my other hand, and praying the hooks don't tear from the suit under the strain of my weight, I grab the scourer and lean toward the nearest panel. All at once, I realise the steady hiss of air into the helmet has ceased. Immediately, panic floods my mouth with hot bile and my ears with white noise. I can't breathe! My fingers slacken, and I drop my equipment. At the same time, the drone lifts me, up-up-up and away, out over the deep black ocean. Dizziness consumes me.
The old wives told it true—your life does flash before your eyes as you're about to die. Front and foremost is the locket. A devastated toddler, a brother condemned, and the gift of a diamond in the shape of a heart on a gold chain. The toddler grown to six years, playing out of sight. She drops the locket accidentally. It doesn't smash or crack. But it does open. … The secret hidden within. Only now does she understand its message.
Sense breaks through the fog of fear, and I clench the diamond hidden within my glove. Gratitude flows out of me for the old sheriff who returned this to me, knowing his time to clean lies but a month hence. For comfort while I die, I'd believed. Now, though, I know better. I remember. Frantic, with lungs burning and chest tight, I wriggle and tug the glove until it falls away. Cold fingers grip the diamond, and I raise it to the helmet and strike at the clasp-lock above my forehead. The tip of the diamond misses on the first go. I have only minutes left before I die. Again, I drag my arm upward—heavy now with fatigue and a body screaming for oxygen. Pain lances through my chest and arm. My fingers spasm, and I almost drop the locket. Desperate, I fumble the jewel, catch it, loop the chain twice around my wrist, and slam the sharp tip at the clasp in one last effort. The button depresses and the helmet springs free. A hard gust rips away the polymer bubble.
I risk lungsful of air. Again. And again. It tastes fresh—if salty—in a way the filtered, manufactured O2 of the dome never has. I gulp another breath. It's incredible. Relief floods my body, and I laugh aloud. The drone unclamps. I drop precipitously. The rushing air once more steals my breath. After a subjective eternity, I smash into the sea. It feels as though I've hit a rock, and only the suit prevents my skin from splitting open on impact. The suit … without the helmet, the freezing water pours through the neck hole. In mere moments, the weight drags me under.
Half blinded, and coughing and retching, I struggle to lift my head through the surface and drag in air. Over and over, the waves crash on top of me. Toss and tumble me. Pummelled and ripped, the suit shreds and tears from my body. My bra goes. It all goes. Even layers of skin in places I’d rather not mention. Once more, I break the surface, suck in a blissful breath, and scream even though there's no one to hear. I lose the lung-power to yell.
Get out. Get out. Get out get out get out. The urgent imperative does me no good. The tangy seaweed-taste of the salt water, the impossible weight of the waves, the crushing pressure in my chest, and the abject terror—I can't fight this. The ocean maintains its wave rhythm mercilessly. In the vast unutterable power of Mother Nature, a mere slip of a girl is nothing. An insignificant dew drop slipping into the night-dark sea ... unremarked. The lack of malice, the inexorability of the thing, is what strikes true terror into my heart. My mind. I understand I'm going to die. Am dying already.
With one last, gargantuan effort, I kick and break the surface. Ice-water slams into my face, and I cough and splutter. Light flares, dazzles, and I clamp my eyes shut against its brilliance and the sting of the salt sea. A crushing thud-thud-thud presses at my ears and gains in volume and pressure as an unknown craft approaches. A rope hangs from its inners. Once more, I slip beneath the rough surface. A hand grabs me and yanks upward. Only half-conscious, I rise as the roped rescuer lifts me to the roaring whump of the flying machine. It's not a drone but has the same kind of rotors, only vast and dangerous-looking. The man drags me into the belly of the beast and clambers in. The flying machine swoops and turns and takes me far from the dome.
Dazed, I blink and stare at my … rescuers? Captors? None of them wears breathing apparatus. What of the Purple Plague? All those deadly viruses released into Earth's atmosphere during the final World War? Even now, I'm not safe. I've swapped one nightmare for another. Confused and desperately tired, I can't understand what's happening. A woman with ebony skin and kind eyes places a band over my ears and takes my wrist. From the soft parts of the band, I hear her say, 'I see John gave you the key.'
I glance down. Blood trickles from where the gold chain has bitten into the flesh. My heart lurches … the locket! A twist of my arm brings a flood of relief, and as my senses return, I notice the weight of the jewel and the sting of broken skin. In wonder, I blurt, 'I'm alive.'
Chuckles greet my proclamation. The woman says, 'You're safe now.' Again, she nods at the locket. 'Your brother has one just like it.'
She nods. 'He'll be waiting for you at the rocks. In a few minutes, you'll see his light.' Her smile widens. 'Most of your cleaners survived, apart from the ones who died of old age, or the ones to whom we couldn't get a key.'
I stare from the locket to the woman. 'Who are you?'
A man in the front of the craft answers, 'Elysians.'
The word means nothing to me. My confusion must show in my expression because he says, 'We come from Elysium. A land where you can live as free as you were born to be.'
I shake my head. 'B-but the plagues? The foul air …'
The woman says, 'The atmosphere repaired itself within fifty years. Cohesion lied to you your whole life.'